Recent Commonplace Entries


“For years now — all my life, in fact — there’s been something building up in western liberal democracy that should have been foreseeable, but perhaps was too obvious. There will be a penalty paid for prosperity and stability, and the penalty is that the young will forget. Liberal democracy in the West can die of itself. It doesn’t need an enemy, it can create its own enemies.”  (Clive James, quoted in a Sunday Times, tribute, December 1)

“Christianity teaches us that a rational God created mankind in His image with the rational faculties needed to comprehend the universe. Far from being irrational, Christianity thereby provides the only stable foundation of rational thought, a trustworthiness undermined by both atheistic materialism and self-obsessed pantheism.” (Aidan Crook, in letter to the Spectator, November 23)

“Mr Khan’s case demonstrates the difficult challenge of distinguishing impostors from those who have truly had a change of heart and mind.”

“It is much easier to deceive people when you do not fear death.” (Prevent official) (from NYT report on Usman Khan’s murders, December 6)

Genetic Nonsense

“The new curriculum acknowledges there are minor genetic differences between geographic populations loosely correlated to today’s racial categories. But the unit also conveys what geneticists have reiterated; people inherit their environment and culture with their genes, and it is a daunting task to disentangle them.” (NYT, December 8)

“Namier condemned all Germans as hereditarily tainted with antisemitism, brutality and militarism. They had always been ‘a deadly menace to Europe’, and always would be.” (Richard J. Evans, in TLS, November 29)


“Some of those who have been arrested have lived in India for generations.” (from NYT report on new Indian citizenship legislation, December 12)

Eh? More pseudo-science . . .

“Christakis demonstrates how we have evolved to enjoy sociality and to be prosocial. Humans crave to belong to a group. We are prepared to forgo individual material rewards in pursuit of this. This prosociality comes from our genes, but the connection between individual genes and individual behavior runs through collective behavior: being prosocial, we co-operate, forming habitats that promote further sociality, and through this common group behavior we have gradually changed the gene pool. Since we are all programmed with these genes, vast swathes of our behavior are common. This is why, as a species, we have evolved to be hard-wired for morality. The metaphors of the ‘naked ape’ and ‘selfish’ gene were always clumsy, but they become dangerously misleading if evolutionary genetics is thought to imply either the selfish organism, or that we are fundamentally just another nasty animal. In fact our ‘selfish’ genes program us to be ethical humans.” (Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford, paraphrasing Nicholas A. Christakis in TLS, December 6)

“Liberal democracy must also be strong and decisive, and sometimes even ruthless in protecting, you know, their own peoples, borders, territories, etc. if people start to believe that there is no possibility to combine freedom and a liberal set of values with safety, security and order, then we have no chance to survive.” (Donald Tusk, interviewed in NYT, December 24)

“In its subsequent history, the welfare state demonstrated an extraordinary political flexibility, embraced by regimes as diverse as Bismarck’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich, and Roosevelt’s New Deal America.” (Benjamin Nathans, in NYRB review of Samuel Moyn’s ‘Not Enough’, December 5)

“Mainstream economists nowadays might not be particularly good at predicting financial crashes, facilitating general prosperity, or coming up with models for preventing climate change, but when it comes to establishing themselves in positions of intellectual authority, unaffected by such failings, their success is unparalleled. One would have to look at the history of religions to find anything like it.” (David Grueber, in NYRB, December 5)

“He [Skidelsky] embodies a uniquely English type: the gentle maverick, so firmly ensconced in the establishment that it never occurs to him that he might not be able to say exactly what he thinks, as those views are tolerated by the establishment precisely for that reason.” (David Grueber, in NYRB, December 5)

“Guy knew of Mr Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George.” (from Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms)

“Men who have endured danger and privation together often separate and forget one another when their ordeal is ended. Men who have loved the same woman are blood brothers even in enmity; . . . ” (from Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen)

“In all his military service Guy never ceased to marvel at the effortless transitions of intercourse between equality and superiority. It was a figure which no temporary officer learned to cut.” (from Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen)

“Enclosing every thin man, there’s a fat man demanding elbow-room.” (Guy Crouchback, in Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen)

“‘Mind you, I’m all for the Russians,’ said Elderbury. ‘We’ve had to do a lot of readjustment in the last few weeks. They’re putting up a wonderful fight.’

‘Pity they keep retreating.’

‘Drawing them on, Guy, drawing them on.’” (from Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen)

“I myself have been too traumatized by Communism and Nazism to have any confidence in the eternal realities of history except the reality of contingency and change, of the imponderable and the unanticipated (and, as often as not, the undesired and the undesirable).” (Gertrude Himmelfarb, in 1989, from her NYT obituary, January 1, 2020)

“He [the Kaiser] spoke English a great deal better than did Edward VII.” (MH’s mother, Edith Edinger) (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 3)

“Later I was to find in Clausewitz an analysis of the historian’s task that coincided exactly with my own experience. First, find out what happened. Then, establish a chain of causation. Finally, apply critical judgement. Before one could interpret the past, one had to recreate it.” (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 130)

“The English people have regressed from being Romans to Italians in a single generation.” (Raymond Aron) (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 156)

“There were in my time three archetypes in the academic world, all pretty odious. One was the ‘God Professor’: the permanent head of a department who condescended to lecture once a week and whose staff had been hand-picked from a court of dependent servile graduate-students. The second was the ‘Airport Professor’, more likely to be found in airport lounges en route to international conferences or to give well-remunerated lectures at the other end of the world than on the home campus. The last was the ‘Consultant Professor’, usually an economist, more often to be found in Whitehall sitting on or chairing government committees than in exercising a duty of care to students.”

“‘Do you realize’, asked Sir Alec [Douglas-Hume], ‘that they actually tried to make me lock him [Masterman] up? It was that book of his, of course. But lock up the best amateur left-hand spin-bowler in England? They must have been out of their minds. I soon put a stop to that, I can tell you.’” (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 189)


“I had written a little about this in a small book The Invention of Peace, a year earlier, where I tried to describe how the Enlightenment, and the secularization and industrialization it brought in its wake, had destroyed the beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years and evoked a backlash of tribal nationalism that had torn apart and reached climax with the two world wars.” (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 218)

“Grossman felt at home in Armenia, where anti-Semitism was absent. Armenians were genetically diverse, like Jews. He met Armenians who had black hair or blond, blue eyes or brown, hooked noses or small straight noses, ‘the thin lips of Jesuits and the thick protuberant lips of Africans.’ This diversity reflected thousands of years of Armenian history and the population’s contact with different nations – numerous raids, invasions, enslavement, and liberation. The same genetic diversity was found among Jews, whose faces ‘look Asian, African, Spanish, German, Slav.’” (from Alexandra Popoff’s Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, p 262)

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